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July 1999
The Transformation of Yoga

By Amy Priest


I’ve been doing yoga since 1974. I majored in dance at high school and my mother thought I might enjoy yoga and that it might be good for me. It didn’t take me long to realize that yoga is what I wanted to do and after about six months one of my teachers suggested I take a teacher training course through Integral Yoga. Two years later, at the Pomfret Center ashram in Connecticut, I received my yoga name—Padma—from Swami Satchidananda the spiritual director of Integral Yoga. The name refers to a plant that grows from the mud and has beautiful flowers. The name suited me because, while I was very much a flower child, I also had two sons and had a regular job so I remained fairly grounded in daily activity. When I became a yoga teacher, I decided to give up eating meat. I didn’t do it for health reasons or for any particular concern for animals, but because I felt it was bad karmically and I didn’t think it was ethical for a yoga teacher to eat meat.

Hatha yoga is the physical practice of performing asanas (positions) combined with the cultivation of the spiritual disciplines known as the yamas and niyamas. Yamas means “restraints” and niyamas means “disciplines,” and these form the heart of the yoga practice. There are five yamas and niyamas. The five yamas are: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (control of our senses), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The five niyamas are: shauca (purity), samtosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (study), and ishvara-pranidhana (devotion to the Lord). These help transform the physical discipline of yoga into a deeper spiritual discipline.

For 20 years I practiced these disciplines which encourage compassion for others and us. But I didn’t really think about animals until one opened my heart. It happened when both my sons were grown. One day about six years ago, someone left a cat in my son’s house and he brought her to my house on the Jersey shore. I immediately fell in love with this little animal and called her Isabella. I can’t explain it, but I just started seeing animals differently. Isabella changed my life. I began to see the suffering of animals. I would see people abandoning animals at the shore, and I started feeling pain for these creatures. I joined one animal protection group after another. I stopped eating dairy products and found out about factory farms and went to demonstrations. I stopped buying leather shoes and other animal products.

When I became a yoga teacher, it was just my own personal choice not to eat meat. I didn’t bring it up in any classes. After Isabella came into my life, I felt her become a part of my yoga teaching. When I had been practicing yoga before I met Isabella, I had told myself that all the suffering in the world was for a purpose and that everything would be OK and fall into place. I closed my eyes and chanted and hoped everything would be nice. After Isabella, I and my practice became more conscious and I realized things wouldn’t necessarily fall into place. Now, I present my feelings for her and my practice of vegetarianism as a fundamental part of ahimsa and ask people to be aware that there is violence involved when we consume animals. I am more direct and focused on every individual in my class, aware of everyone’s own needs and levels. I teach in that same consciousness with which I approach the animals.

Yoga has helped me deal with the stress of animal suffering. If I was only involved with the animal rights movement without yoga, it would be too painful. Sitting on my cushion and going through my asanas helps me understand there is another level. But when we see suffering and injustice, it’s not enough to say it’s all karma and turn our backs. We have to do something, and this is something I feel I have learned through yoga. Because of my animal activism, my yoga has changed from hatha yoga—the physical discipline—to karma yoga, the yoga of action. Since I became aware of the animal issue, my yoga is less of a physical practice than it used to be. Somehow, it has become more than words or postures. It is now truly an integral yoga.

Most of my students are very respectful of my attitude toward animals. At first it was very painful for me to see the suffering of animals in so many areas. I’m able to deal with it now because I share the knowledge I have and can inform many people who don’t know how animals are treated. One of the women in my class asked me recently what she could teach her child about yoga. I told her she should make sure to teach her child that the yoga positions are often named after animals. In my experience children love this fact. It serves to remind all of us, no matter how young we are, that the animals have taught us these positions. I end each class I teach by saying, “May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings find peace.”

Amy Priest
is a certified massage therapist and Integral Yoga teacher who teaches at community and adult education centers in New Jersey. She also teaches privately. All correspondence should be addressed to her through Satya.


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